The Grammarphobia Blog

Late for the funeral

Q: Mma Precious Ramotswe, the protagonist of Alexander McCall Smith’s detective series, says the mother of her foster children “is late.” Of course, she doesn’t mean their biological mother is not on time. It sounds as odd to me as if a tardy student were referred to as “the late Jimmy Jones.”

A: It’s true that Mma Ramotswe has an unusual way of referring to the dead as “late.” And so do the other Batswana (residents of Botswana) in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels.

Usually the adjective “late,” in the sense of “deceased,” precedes the noun, as in “her late father” or “the late Mr. Dithers.”

But the characters in Smith’s novels speak a dialect in which the adjective is used predicatively after the noun, as in “her father was late” or “Mr. Dithers became late.”

To most of us, “late” after a noun means tardy or not on time. If we mean a person is no longer alive, we use a different adjective in that position, like “dead” or “deceased.”

Smith is well acquainted with the English dialect used in Botswana. A British writer born in what is now Zimbabwe, he was a professor of law (first in Scotland and later in Botswana) when he began writing fiction. He now lives in Edinburgh.

This passage from The Double Comfort Safari Club, the 11th book in Smith’s series, illustrates how the Batswana use “late”:

“ ‘That road,’ observed Mma Mateleke, ‘goes to a place where there is a woman I know well, Rra. And why do I know this woman well? Because she has had fifteen children, can you believe it? Fifteen. And fourteen of them are still here—only one is late. That one, he ate a battery, Rra, and became late quite quickly after that.’ ”

Later in the novel is a passage in which two women are talking, and the author slips in an explanation of this use of “late”:

“’Standing under a fig tree is safe enough, Mma,’ she said. ‘But you should never stand under a sausage tree.’ The sausage tree, the moporoto in Setswana, was a sort of jacaranda that had heavy fruit like great, pendulous sausages.

“’Certainly not, Mma. there are many people who are late now because of that. Those are very heavy pods and if you get one on your head, then you are in great danger of becoming late.’

“She used the expression that the Batswana preferred: to become late. There was human sympathy here; to be dead is to be nothing, to be finished. The expression is far too final, too disruptive of the bonds that bind us to one another, bonds that survive the demise of one person. A late father is still your father, even though he is not there. A dead father sounds as if he has nothing further to do—he is finished.”

Suddenly, the usage makes sense!

Unfortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary has no entries illustrating this use of “late” in Botswana, whose official languages are Setswana and English.

However, the OED has examples going back to the 15th century for the adjectival use of “late” preceding a noun and meaning “recently deceased.”

Here’s the first citation, from William Caxton’s translation of The Boke yf Eneydos (1490): “Her swete and late amyable husbonde.”

No doubt the OED will eventually get around to the use of “late” in the dialect of Botswana. Better late than never.

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